Transparency Report Update: July – December 2017

Today we invite you to read our bi-annual update to the Automattic transparency report, covering the period from July 1, 2017 to December 31, 2017. Read through to find details on the number of information requests and takedown demands we received from governments, as well as from intellectual property rights holders under the DMCA.

Our commitment to transparency pushes us to find ways to improve what we share, and we’re pleased to announce three major additions for this reporting period. In this update, we include statistics on the number of notices we’ve received from Internet Referral Units (IRUs). We also share details on the country blocks that we’ve been forced to put in place in countries like Turkey and Russia. Finally, we include more insight into the government takedown demands we receive and how we respond. Want to learn more? Read on!

Internet Referral Unit Stats

As we acknowledged in our last blog post, addressing extremist content while simultaneously protecting freedom of speech is a major challenge for online platforms, including WordPress.com. Currently, state authorities report to us material that they believe to be in violation of our Terms of Service, which we then evaluate. In an effort to shed more light on this process, we’ve created a whole new section in our report, where we’ll share updated figures every six months. Click here for more information.

Country Block Transparency

Automattic routinely receives censorship demands from government agencies around the world concerning content published on WordPress.com. We go to great lengths to fight these, but are sometimes left with no choice but to geoblock content in certain regions. We otherwise risk having access to our services completely cut off.

We’ve experimented with different ways of making this data public in the past (including submitting details to the Lumen Database, and creating a “mirrored archive” for Russia), but until now there has been no central place to find details on all currently geoblocked WordPress.com sites. Our new page changes all that, and includes the lists in text format to hopefully make it easier for censorship-monitoring sites like OONI and Blocked to import and track.

More Insight Into Government Takedown Demands

Previously, we didn’t include situations where we removed content because it violated our policies in the “percentage of requests where content was removed.” This is because we would have removed the content regardless of how we came across it. In other words, the fact that the content was brought to our attention via a government demand or court order had no bearing on the action we took. For example, if a government entity reported a site for selling controlled substances, we’d suspend the site, but not count that as a request where content was removed. However, we recognized that we could provide more insight about the actions we take and the types of reports we’re seeing from each country by sharing a new data point: “percentage of requests where content was removed due to a violation of our policies.” To minimize potential confusion, we’ve renamed the original description to “percentage of requests where content was removed solely in response to the demand.”

We hope that you find all of this new information interesting, and we’d encourage other platforms to share their own experiences in these areas.

Tackling Extremist Content on WordPress.com

At Automattic, we build tools that make it easy for anybody to share their voice online. WordPress.com is home to tens of millions of sites, covering a huge variety of topics and issues—from news blogs, to websites for Fortune 500 companies, to thriving ecommerce stores. It also means that we inevitably host content which some may find offensive, distasteful, or even abhorrent.

Like most online hosts, we do not pre-screen the content that our millions of users post to our services. We evaluate reports of content that goes against our User Guidelines or Terms of Service, and take some measures to proactively search out spam or other abusive content that’s posted to our services. We try to make the process for reporting illegal or abusive sites as transparent and simple as possible. If you see a site that you think violates our rules, please report it to us here.

One category of content that has been a focus for law enforcement and all internet companies—including Automattic—is terrorist or extremist propaganda.

The volume of these sites reported on WordPress.com is not high. In 2017, we received 131 reports from government Internet Referral Units that sites violated our policies against extremist content. This is out of the millions of sites that we host. Even given the relatively low volume, we do take this issue very seriously and have developed some specific procedures to address it on our platform. Continue reading

Hall of Shame: Something Stinks in Abbotsford

For our latest Hall of Shame entry, we turn our gaze towards the City of Abbotsford in Canada. For reference, here’s their logo. Commit it to memory, as you’ll want to remember what it looks like for later:

city of abbotsford.jpg

City officials took issue with a 2013 post written by a homeless blogger that criticized them for reportedly “deliberately spread[ing] chicken manure on a homeless person’s camp” in an effort to deter people from congregating in the area. To demonstrate just how… dirty a move the blogger thought this was, he illustrated his post with a doctored image of the city’s logo, which had been modified to include a large … well, see for yourself:

City of Abbotsford Parody Logo

The accompanying text reads:

“Oh crap! Abbotsford already needs to update their new city logo.”

That seems to make the blogger’s feelings quite clear. Unhappy, however, with this depiction of their logo, a marketing firm purporting to act on behalf of the Abbotsford city council sent us a DMCA takedown notification earlier this January, claiming copyright over the image.

DMCA-Abbotsford.png

It is unclear why the city council decided to go down this particular route in an attempt to have the image removed, or why it took them almost four years to do so. What is clear, however, is that this stinks. Pardon the pun. It was glaringly obvious that the addition of the hilariously large feces was for the purposes of parody, and tied directly to the criticisms laid out in the post. As a result, it seems hard to believe that the city council took fair use considerations into account before firing off their ill-advised notice, and trying to wipe up this mess.

We rejected the complaint, and passed it on to the blogger for his perusal. In response, he updated the logo, just in case there was any doubt that the image was being used for the purposes of commentary or criticism:

City of Abbotsford Parody Logo

Much clearer now.

City of Abbotsford, welcome to the Hall of Shame.

Note: Our use of the Abbotsford city logo in this post is also for the purposes of commentary or criticism, and therefore falls under fair use protections. If anybody on the council happens to be reading, please don’t send us another DMCA takedown. 🙂

Transparency Report Update: July–December 2016. Consistency is Key.

Today we launch our seventh bi-annual transparency report, covering the period between July 1 and December 31, 2016.

As usual, we detail the number of takedown demands and requests for information received from governments, as well as the intellectual property (IP) takedown notices we have received.

Having published these reports for a number of years now, something that is particularly striking is just how consistent the intellectual property figures are from one period to the next. To demonstrate this point, here are the percentages for the number of DMCA takedown requests we have rejected for each period, on the basis of being incomplete or abusive. The graphs include the total overall number of requests to provide some more context:

Looking just at the percentage of abusive notices received per reporting period, we see an even tighter range:

We believe that these numbers demonstrate a persistent and ongoing issue with the current copyright takedown system, which allows abuse to go unchecked due to a lack of real statutory consequences. Ten percent of notices on a single platform may not appear like much of a concern, but if our experience is representative of other similar hosts in the industry, the overall volume of abuse would amount to a huge number.

The same consistency seen in the IP numbers is not reflected in the percentage of government takedown demands that result in some or all content being removed as a result. Rather, these figures show a marked increase. This is partly due to a steadily climbing number of demands from countries such as Turkey and Russia, and also to a shift in our approach to handling these.

We encourage you to spend time looking through the data that we have collected, and dig in for yourselves. We’d also call on all hosts — big or small — to publish their own figures, and add their voice to the conversation.

The full transparency report is available here.

Automattic is an ORG Sponsor

This week we were proud to be unveiled as an official corporate sponsor of the Open Rights Group (‘ORG’), the very same week that the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill is being debated in the British Parliament.

Open Rights Group
ORG has been fighting tirelessly for digital rights in the UK since 2005. Despite their relatively small size, they have achieved some significant victories. They have campaigned against damaging legislation such as ACTA (which was rejected by the European Parliament in 2012); been instrumental in the implementation of the HTTP Error 451 status code to highlight sites that are rendered inaccessible for legal reasons; challenged mass surveillance in court; helped secure a ‘right to parody’ in the UK; and particularly close to our heart… fought for the rights of bloggers when they’ve been threatened with frivolous copyright takedown demands.

The work that ORG do is vital to protecting many of the online values Automattic shares, and we’re happy to support their mission.

Find out more about the Open Rights Group on their site.

Error 451: Unavailable for Legal Reasons

Internet Service Providers and online platforms like WordPress.com are increasingly facing demands to block access to URLs in different countries. These orders can come as the result of court decisions (in the case of the UK and Turkey), or directly from governmental authorities (in the case of Russia or Georgia) and are usually directed at content that governments find illegal or objectionable.

Before now, there has been no standard error message that is both machine-readable and also explains to visitors the reason that the site is unavailable.

Default messages like the infamous ‘Error 404 – Page not found’ or its close cousin, ‘Error 403 – Forbidden’ strike us as inadequate for situations where sites are unavailable for legal reasons. Enter the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). They have approved a new HTTP error status code: Error 451, named after Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’. This development comes after 2 years of campaigning by groups such as the Open Rights Group and Article 19.

We are strongly opposed to Internet censorship, and believe that geoblocking is both inappropriate and an ineffective remedy for controversial speech. The introduction of the new HTTP error code is a welcome one, and we have gladly adopted it on WordPress.com. The error code will be returned to visitors from those countries where we have been forced to block websites for legal reasons, and allow statistics to be gathered on the number of these kind of blocks worldwide more easily.

For more information on the requests we receive from governments, please see our latest Transparency Report.

‘451 unavailable’ header image modified from original logo by the Open Rights Group under CC-BY-SA 4.0 Licence.

The Baby Dances On: A Win for Fair Use

Last week saw an important victory in the battle to protect the fair use of copyrighted material online. A Federal Appeals Court held in Lenz v. Universal that the DMCA requires rights holders to consider the important doctrine of ‘fair use’ before issuing a takedown notification. We submitted an amicus brief in this case, and are very pleased to see the court agree with many of our arguments.

Behold, the dancing baby that started the whole thing off:

The outcome of the case underlines and highlights the importance of fair use, and will hopefully cause copyright holders to pause and take the doctrine more seriously than many of them have done in the past.

In the words of the court:

Fair use is not just excused by the law, it is wholly authorized by the law.

This is critical. Sharing excerpts of articles, commenting on the news, and re-blogging portions of popular blog posts have become the lifeblood of the social internet, and important to the community we are building on WordPress.com. We have long fought to preserve legitimate rights to fair use, through the courts, through education of users and copyright holders and by pushing back on DMCA notices that target fair use on WordPress.com. In the last reporting period, we rejected 43% of notices for being either incomplete or abusive.

Our approach to honoring fair use is not meant to help our users to ‘get away’ with anything; we are defending their wholly legitimate rights from abuse. With that in mind, it is heartening to see that the 9th circuit agree with us: fair use is fundamental to copyright law, and all valid DMCA requests must give fair use due consideration.

Not the end of the story

Despite the importance of the decision, we shouldn’t be cracking out the champagne just yet. For one, we wish the court had taken the opportunity to provide a clearer, more objective standard for the consideration of fair use than they have. In our amicus brief we argued strongly for requiring complainants to form an objective belief that material in question was not fair use before submitting a takedown notification. The court relied instead on a subjective standard, that will be difficult to enforce, and provides less deterrent against the trampling of fair use rights.

Most of all, we hope the decision causes rights holders to take a closer look at their process for evaluating potential infringing activity, particularly those who make use of third party agents to send bulk automated takedowns. We have always believed that this process is nuanced, and requires some sort of human review to prevent abuse. We would like the Lenz decision to act as a catalyst for more thoughtful use of the DMCA’s notification and takedown process. There needs to be a recognition that simply finding a ‘matching’ file or text algorithmically does not signal the end of the investigation process, but just the beginning. This sentiment was expressed by Judge Smith in the opinion, who noted that while automated systems can be a useful tool for identifying the use of copyrighted material, that does not mean that they are capable of analyzing whether that use is fair, and therefore legal.

The battle to protect fair use isn’t over by a long shot, but for now – the baby dances on.

Read more over at the EFF.

Header image by Kjell Reigstad.

More Transparent Content Removal

Every day we receive a significant number of requests to have content removed from sites hosted on WordPress.com. Many of these involve alleged copyright violations making use of the DMCA takedown process, or the publication of sensitive private information. We review every single one by hand to ensure that the processes are not being abused for the purposes of censorship, and are constantly looking to improve how they are handled.

Content Removal Image

Before now, whenever content was removed from sites in these situations, there was no visual indication to explain why things may not be displaying correctly, with visitors confronted with a 404 page not found error instead. This was far from an ideal situation, and as part of our commitment to increased transparency, we are proud to be able to say that this is no longer the case.

From today, when content is removed from a WordPress.com site as the result of a DMCA takedown, or a private information complaint, a notice will be placed on the site in question to explain exactly what content has been removed, when, and why. In the case of images, a placeholder will be displayed. We hope this will help ensure that on those occasions where we are required to intervene, that the reasons for doing so are as clear as possible.

Read more about our DMCA policy here.

Read more about our private information policy here.

In addition to implementing this new process, we have also updated our documentation with new pages on how we approach the DMCA in general. You can find this at the following links:

https://en.support.wordpress.com/our-dmca-process/

https://en.support.wordpress.com/copyright-and-the-dmca/

When Bots go Bad: Automated DMCA Takedown Problems

In the past, we’ve not been shy about highlighting a number of the issues that exist with the DMCA, and recently fought back against its abuse in court. However, it remains true that tackling repeated instances of copyright infringement online can be repetitive work, and it’s no surprise that some people opt to outsource this task to third parties who have an army of specially programmed bots at their command.

These kind of automated systems scour the web, firing off takedown notifications where unauthorized uses of material are found – so humans don’t have to. Sounds great in theory, but it doesn’t always work out as smoothly in practice. Much akin to some nightmare scenario from the Terminator, sometimes the bots turn on their creators.

Be Afraid

Be afraid

We saw this happen fairly recently on WordPress.com, in an it-would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-serious kind of scenario. Attributor.com sent in a formally valid takedown notification on behalf of an academic, demanding that we disable access to a PDF that infringed upon his copyright. Following the statutory requirements, we did so, and notified the user, with instructions on how to submit a counter notification if they wished to challenge the removal.

Within a few days we heard back from the (understandably unhappy) site owner, who explained that they were in fact the copyright holder. The takedown notification was issued by an agency working on his behalf, and their bot had mistakenly targeted the original author’s site.

Ouch.

The confusion was eventually sorted out after the agency retracted the original takedown notice, and we restored access – but not before it was unavailable for almost five full days.

The DMCA notification and takedown process is a powerful weapon in the battle against copyright infringement, but it can also cause severe harm to freedom of speech when used inappropriately. As a result, it is something that should be deployed carefully, and with respect. All too often, overly broad takedown notifications are sent to online service providers in a scatter gun approach, with the financial interests of third party agents (who are routinely paid by instance of successful takedown) placed above the accuracy of the reports.

There is no question that there are a lot of issues involved in choosing to use bots to enforce copyright, but having them turn against you has got to be one of the worst.

Open Sourcing Our DMCA Process

At Automattic, we are firm believers in the power of open source: the release of code (or other works) into the public domain to be used, modified, and shared freely.

One of the challenges faced by online service providers is how to implement an effective policy for dealing with the DMCA takedown process – especially in cases where the system is being abused. We strive to protect users’ freedom of speech, and would love to see others do the same. However, the possible scenarios and requirements can be confusing; the language intimidating… especially for websites run by individuals or small organisations.

As a result, we are pleased to announce that today we are open sourcing our DMCA process docs on GitHub – under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Included in the release is our already publicly available pages for details on how to submit a DMCA takedown and counter notice:

http://automattic.com/dmca/

http://automattic.com/dmca-counter-notice/

In addition, there is also a comprehensive set of detailed ‘predefined replies’ that we use when corresponding with both users and complainants in specific situations.

Some examples are:

  • Informing a user that a DMCA notice against their site has been received, the material disabled, and instructions for what to do next if they wish to challenge the removal.
  • Notification to a claimant that we are rejecting their claim on fair use grounds.
  • A response to an incomplete DMCA takedown, outlining which elements render the notice invalid, and instructions on how to make the necessary corrections.

We hope that this will help demystify some of the issues surrounding the DMCA process, and help others to implement their own.

The updated repo is available here, with the relevant docs filed under ‘DMCA’:

https://github.com/Automattic/legalmattic